State Elections

Published — October 6, 2016

Who’s trying to influence 2016 state elections?

A guide to our latest political TV ad tracker


The Center for Public Integrity is investigating who is trying to influence the 2016 elections through television advertising, part of an ongoing effort to consider the sources behind political power in this country.

What is the Center tracking?

For its third consecutive year, the Center for Public Integrity has created an app to track spending on political TV advertising for state elections around the country. That includes broadcast TV ads for all statewide elective offices — such as governors, attorneys general and supreme court justices — plus legislative races. The numbers are helpful barometers of how actively a candidate or group has been using television advertising to shape the races.

Why should I care about the amounts spent on political television advertising?

Television advertising remains one of the most popular and most expensive ways to reach voters. Tracking it provides one of the most current and comparable pictures available of campaign spending across the states. Money doesn’t always win races, but it often helps push a candidate or ballot measure to victory — or defeat. Tracking these ads helps identify who is trying to influence voters and change the outcome of elections. The ads also provide one of the most comprehensive and comparable pictures available of campaign spending across states.

How can I use this?

This information can help you see who is paying to influence your vote in the 2016 elections.

The opening view of the State Ad Wars Tracker shows at a glance where the biggest expenditures on TV ads have been this election cycle. Scroll below the map to see how state races stack up against each other. Or click on a state to see who sponsored the ads for state-level races there and browse timelines to see when the most ads aired. Get key numbers and compare the size of ad buys between candidates, groups and political parties.

Who is paying for these ads?

Airtime for political advertising is purchased by candidate committees, political parties and independent groups.

What’s the difference between candidate committees, political parties and independent groups?

Political parties and independent groups are more likely to run negative ads that attack a candidate, allowing the candidate supported by the group to appear above the fray. Independent groups typically can accept money from corporations and unions, which candidates running for office cannot do in some states. Such independent groups often don’t have to disclose the same information about the sources of their funding as candidates or parties. A growing share of political ads have come from such groups in recent elections, according to the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis.

Where does this information come from?

The Center for Public Integrity analyzes data from Kantar Media/CMAG — CMAG stands for Campaign Media Analysis Group — which monitors television signals for political advertising nationwide. The companycounts ads each time they run. Then, using a proprietary formula, it estimates how much it costs to run each ad. These may not match up exactly with the true costs of placing an ad. Think of the cost estimates as a well-informed guess, which can provide useful points of comparison. Additionally, the estimates cover only the cost of purchasing airtime, not the cost of making the ads.

What period does this information cover?

The information covers political television advertising that ran starting Jan. 1, 2015, geared toward the 2016 elections. To find spending on 2014 and 2015 races, visit our 2014 Ad Wars tracker and our 2015 Ad Wars tracker.

How often are these numbers updated?

Starting Oct. 6, the trackers will be updated weekly on Thursdays through the Nov. 8 election and the Center for Public Integrity will be writing stories about what we find.

Which ads are included?

Kantar Media/CMAG monitors television ads that run on local broadcast TV in 211 media markets, as well as national network and national cable TV, but it doesn’t monitor local cable stations. So if a local ad runs on a cable channel, as some are expected to in the 2016 elections, it won’t be counted here. Examples of those are the hyper-local ads that viewers might see on ESPN, TNT or Comedy Central.

Does this include digital ads, such as those on YouTube? Ads from radio?

No, these numbers only reflect the ads that ran on television. Kantar Media/CMAG monitors most TV stations, but not local cable stations, websites or the radio. It also does not include print advertisements.

How does this compare to what is available from government sources?

The estimates only cover television ads, not other kinds of political messages, such as ads that appear on radio or online. The estimates also only include how much money a candidate or organization spent to place the ad, not to make it. And it only counts the ads once they air. Records filed at the Federal Communications Commission, for example, can show TV airtime that groups pay to reserve for the future. The ad tracker also includes all ads containing overt candidate advocacy as well as “issue ads” that mention a candidate but don’t overtly call for the candidate’s election or defeat.

Why are the spending estimates different from other sources?

These numbers represent actual television ads that have already run. It doesn’t include the cost of producing the ads. It also doesn’t include ads that run on local cable, online or radio. It doesn’t include ads booked to run in the future. It does include ads that don’t expressly advocate for election or defeat of a candidate. And it’s based on estimates. Counts from other sources are often different in one or more of these ways.

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Have more questions about these numbers? Want to interview one of our reporters for an article?

Email state politics team leader Kytja Weir or call our statehouse reporters’ hotline at 202-750-0686. Reporters should include what state and race they are writing about and their deadlines.

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